It’s referred to as cultural identity.
Dominicans are the fifth largest ethnic group in the United States, and no more is this felt than in the barrios of New York City. Largely concentrated in Washington Heights and the Bronx, Dominicans are expressing themselves by fusing traditional customs into the concept of “American Society.”
Next week, in advance of the July 28 official celebration of Dominican achievement at the National Mall in Washington D.C., the Dominican American National Roundtable will publish the first-of-its kind “Dominican List” highlighting successes of an estimated 400 Dominicans who have contributed to U.S. society.
A sociologist, a writer and a politician on that list relayed their stories about their immigrant experiences to VOXXI. All three arrived in New York City in a different decade — during the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
“A lot of light”
Ramona Hernandez arrived in New York on a Pan Am flight one December evening during the early 1960s. Her first impression was the city lights. She discovered the feel of snow and found it fascinating that everyone was wrapped in warm clothing.
She adapted quickly to city life as an 18-year-old from the coastal island of the Dominican Republic.
“I learned to cover myself like the other people,” she said.
Yet, her inability to speak English made communication a challenge. Accustomed to the friendly gestures of her fellow compatriots, Hernandez was taken aback from the reservation of her subway peers.
“Getting into the subway in New York City and seeing people and wanting to talk to them because they looked Latino, but also knowing that you couldn’t because it wasn’t the proper way, was a challenge to get used to,” Hernandez told VOXXI.
Hernandez is the director of the Dominican Studies Institute and sociology professor at the City College of New York. She investigates the labor, migration and socio-economic lives of Dominicans in the United States.
“I think it was a desire to say things about the Dominican people that were taken with respect,” said Hernandez of her ambition.
Dr. Hernández’s work is celebrated also in the Dominican Republic, where she has received the country’s highest civilian honor, the Meritorious Order of Duarte, Sanchez y Mella, and serves as a trustee of the International Institute of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences.
Her goal is to promote the Dominican experience for those who are unaware of the struggles they face and highlight how they integrate into American society.
Growing up she realized Dominicans in New York were not making nor getting paid a fair wage. That taught her a lesson.
“You could get a job, but not necessarily make it,” she said. “That was an interesting learning experience when I wanted to look deeper and ask questions.”
Juan Pichardo likes to consider himself an elected official as opposed to a politician.
In 1996, his friend decided to run for office, and so Pichardo decided to join him with the efforts.
Going door-to-door, he discovered that many people in his community were not aware of the political process. They didn’t know who their elected officials were — or the policies they were advocating.
“Some of the people who were elected into office could not relate at that time,” Pichardo told VOXXI. “Having that awareness pushed me to say, ‘This is where we belong, this is where we need to put our efforts to ensure that there’s a greater participation. Not just think of ourselves, but to inspire others to get involved in elected office.”’
Pichardo decided to run for state senate in 2003. He is considered the first Dominican American State Senator in the nation serving Rhode Island’s District 2.
Since then, Sen. Pichardo accomplished a push for numerous legislation focusing on immigration rights and health coverage policies. He advocated for judges to make sure immigrants knew their rights before they plead. He helped pass several predatory lending laws that curtailed loans that would have exacerbated the economic situation for people of color. In the past ten years, he said, they’ve proposed a Rhode Island version of the DREAM Act.
To those who were skeptical of him because he was Latino and unknown, Pichardo pitched the story of why he joined the military as a Dominican American.
“That provided at least some venue that connected the non-Latino population to realize that ‘Hey, I too love this country. I too served in the military and I too hold the same values of America,’” he said.
Pichardo arrived in New York City from the Dominican Republic at the age of nine. His mother worked in a jewelry factory and they lived in the projects. He looks up to her because she struggled to provide a better life for him and his sister.
“You don’t realize you’re poor until you read it in the paper,” Pichardo told VOXXI.
As an elected official, he relays the story of where he comes from to inspire the younger generation.
“They’ve gotten to know me after awhile and they gave me the opportunity to share with them my story, and eventually I was able to break that barrier and gain their confidence.”
Writing about immigrants
Diogenese Abreu fled the crime from the Dominican Republic only to discover another sense of discrimination inhabited the streets of New York City. Abreu wrote stories in the Dominican Republic, but he had to confront a different reality in the states.
“The setting changed so my writing changed in terms of the subject matter. Elements that affected my decision to concentrate on specific issues were the fact that we were here as immigrants and [that] we were confronted with negative attitudes that we didn’t have to deal with in the Dominican Republic,” he said.
“Right from when you arrive, you know that there are already people here who think some resources belong to them because they were here before you, and you just have to wait in line for your turn to get there,” Abreu told VOXXI.
Now, Abreu dedicates his time to writing about other people’s experiences. Some of his works include a play based on his encounter with home attendants who were defending their housing rights. A Pesar del Naufragio is based on testimony he gathered from Dominican women in the community who relate their stories on domestic violence. Perejil is a collection of announcements of Dominicans living in the United States. Engañisas are based on his findings regarding Haitian and Dominican relationships.
“When you put literature out there, you don’t have control of how people are going to react to your literary work,” said Abreu. “My purpose in publishing literature is to give people a connection to my point of view in terms of cultural production.”
All three of these Latinos on the list agree that being Dominican has influenced their work in more ways than one.
Hernandez best sums it up through a socio-cultural lens. Researching the immigrants from Ellis Island, she found the first Dominican arrived in the United States during the late 1800s. She realized that persons of Dominican descent still value their heritage despite being third-generation.
“They all come in different shapes and colors and one thing that unites us all is our love for people, a love for identity, a love for culture and the desire to protect that,” said Hernandez.
“In my book, you are Dominican if you do that.”